* Death toll rises to at least 339 in Haiti
* Mass evacuations in four US states
* Storm moves parallel, just offshore of Florida's east coast
The first major hurricane threatening a direct hit on the United States in more than 10 years lashed Florida on Friday with heavy rains and winds after killing at least 339 people in Haiti on its destructive march north through the Caribbean.
hurricane Matthew packed gusts of 70 miles per hour (115 kph) and heavy downpours across coastal communities in Florida as the storm's eye moved parallel to and just offshore of Florida's east coast near Cape Canaveral, home to the nation's chief space launch site, the National hurricane Center said in an advisory.
"We are seriously ground zero here in Cape Canaveral - hunkered down, lights flickering winds are crazy," said resident Sandy Wilk on Twitter.
At 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT), Matthew was about 40 miles (65 km) southeast of Cape Canaveral, the hurricane center said. It was heading north-northwest at about 13 mph (20 kph) and was expected to continue on this track through the early part of Friday. The center said the storm is expected to gradually weaken during the next 48 hours.
NASA and the U.S. Air Force, which operate the Cape Canaveral launch site, took steps to safeguard personnel and equipment.
A team of 116 employees was bunkered down inside Kennedy Space Center's Launch Control Center to ride out the hurricane.
"We've had some close calls, but as far as I know it's the first time we've had the threat of a direct hit," NASA spokesman George Diller said by email from the hurricane bunker.
No significant damage or injuries were reported in West Palm Beach and other communities in south Florida where the storm downed trees and power lines earlier in the night, CNN and local media reported.
About 300,000 Florida households were without power, local media reported. In West Palm Beach, once lit street lights and houses went dark and Interstate 95 was empty as the storm rolled through the community of 100,000 people.
hurricane Matthew was carrying extremely dangerous winds of 120 mph (195 kph), the US National hurricane Center said.
Matthew's winds had dropped on Thursday night and into Friday morning, downgrading it to a Category 3 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity, where it could either plow inland or tear along the Atlantic coast through Friday night, the Miami-based center said.
Few storms with winds as powerful as Matthew's have struck Florida, and the NHC warned of "potentially disastrous impacts."
The US National Weather Service said the storm could be the most powerful to strike northeast Florida in 118 years.
A dangerous storm surge was expected to reach up to 11 feet (3.35 meters) along the Florida coast, Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the Miami-based NHC, said on CNN.
"What we know is that most of the lives lost in hurricanes is due to storm surge," he said.
Some 339 people were killed in Haiti, local officials said, and thousands were displaced after the storm flattened homes, uprooted trees and inundated neighborhoods earlier in the week. Four people were killed in the Dominican Republic, which neighbors Haiti.
Damage and potential casualties in the Bahamas were still unclear as the storm passed near the capital, Nassau, on Thursday and then out over the western end of Grand Bahama Island.
It was too soon to predict where Matthew might do the most damage in the United States, but the NHC's hurricane warning extended up the Atlantic coast from southern Florida through Georgia and into South Carolina. More than 12 million people in the United States were under hurricane watches and warnings, according to the Weather Channel.
The last major hurricane, classified as a storm bearing sustained winds of more than 110 mph (177 kph), to make landfall on U.S. shores was hurricane Wilma in 2005.
Jeff Masters, a veteran hurricane expert, said on his Weather Underground website (www.wunderground.com) that Matthew's wind threat was especially serious at Cape Canaveral, which juts into the Atlantic off central Florida.
"If Matthew does make landfall along the Florida coast, this would be the most likely spot for it. Billions of dollars of facilities and equipment are at risk at Kennedy Space Center and nearby bases, which have never before experienced a major hurricane," Masters wrote.
'As serious as it gets'
Roads in Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina were jammed, and gas stations and food stores ran out of supplies as the storm approached early on Thursday.
Governor Rick Scott warned there could be "catastrophic" damage if Matthew slammed directly into the state and urged some 1.5 million people there to evacuate.
"If you're reluctant to evacuate, just think about all the people ... already killed," Scott said at a news conference. "Time is running out. This is clearly either going to have a direct hit or come right along the coast."
Scott, who activated several thousand National Guard troops to help deal with the storm, warned that millions of people were likely to be left without power.
Destroyed houses are seen after Hurricane Matthew hit Jeremie, Haiti
Florida, Georgia and South Carolina opened shelters for evacuees. As of Thursday morning, more than 3,000 people were being housed in 60 shelters in Florida, Scott said.
Those three states as well as North Carolina declared states of emergency, empowering their governors to mobilize the National Guard.
President Barack Obama called the governors of the four states on Thursday to discuss preparations for the storm. He declared a state of emergency in Florida and South Carolina, a move that authorized federal agencies to coordinate disaster relief efforts. Late Thursday, Obama declared an emergency in Georgia and ordered federal aid to the state.
"hurricane Matthew is as serious as it gets. Listen to local officials, prepare, take care of each other," Obama warned people in the path of the storm in a posting on Twitter.
Hundreds of passenger flights were canceled in south Florida, and cancellations were expected to spread north in coming days along the storm's path, airlines including American Airlines, Delta Airlines and United Airlines said.Last updated: October 07 2016 01:53 PM
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